Evacuations: How Are We Going to Get Out?

“They coming by boat, they coming by plane, they coming in wheel chair, and walking with cane” is a line taken from a popular Bahamian song that has nothing to do with evacuations, but never the less speaks volumes to what can be expected during an evacuation event. It really asks the question, have you prepared for the variables and challenges that can present themselves during an emergency event.

When crisis events such as fire, bomb threats or even severe weather conditions present themselves timely safe and coordinated evacuations usually form a part of your response options. Be it as simple as evacuating from a building or as complex as evacuating from a country, this escape option cannot be left to chance. Compounding this situation is that during emergency events most rational thinking person become very irrational as a result of the panic and chaos that usually accompany these scenarios. We have seen during some of our training drills how staff in particular disregards safety and ‘customer service’ and make mad dash for the door, their car, and leave. The key to managing this type of behavior is planning, culture imbedding, and the testing / drilling of these plans. Unfamiliarity creates diminishes comfort and confidence in the prescribe strategy; people go into survival mode which often times leads to reckless and dangerous actions.

The decision to evacuate is a very quick and determined one; there is usually no time for a second opinion or consultation. The risks are high and the assets, be they human, information or property, are too valuable to chance hesitation and uncertainty. As true as this statement is, our research has shown that many business have not developed a comprehensive exit strategy that takes into account the impact this type of response will have on their reputation and operations. Essentially in 2014, most businesses have only gotten as far as the parking lot as it pertains to evacuation, this stands fast for schools, banks, medical facilities and the like. Very little consideration has been given to students, customers and staff standing in the hot sun for periods going beyond 45 minutes to an hour or that it may be a rainy day. By now you would agree that even though the decision to evacuate is fast, preparing for the complexities of the actioning requires a little more fore thought.

In this 4-part series of articles we will share some of our experience and insight in the forward thinking required for safe and quick evacuations not just out of your home and building, but if necessary out of the country as well.

We will start our discussion with who has the authority to evacuate, who gives the order. Unfortunately for many occupants of the World Trade Center in 2001, that order never came. Believe it or not many people during this tragic event were waiting for the order to leave despite the fact that building was hit by planes and consumed in fire. Perhaps you never took the time to look at the Emergency Evacuation Chart in your hotel room, a US Federal Government Requirement. That’s the hotel’s way of telling you that no one is coming up to the 20th floor penthouse to tell you to get out.

An article published in the 2009 journal Psychological Science investigated this same reaction. Transportation and behavioral researches have been studying how people respond to emergencies, and have discovered that many persons because of disbelief not necessarily faith in the agency or government goes into shock and simply will not move. A frightening phenomena to say the least but a reality that has been documented in several disaster events.

Most recently we see in the South Korea Fairy Disaster in April 2014, where it was reported that many of the nearly 200 hundred victims were simply waiting on instructions to move. The fact of the matter is that you and you alone have the first and final say on evacuation. Despite the term ‘mandatory evacuation’ it only means that the agency or government has freed itself from any liability or responsibility if you decide to stay. Similarly in a building once an evacuation order has been given it is incumbent on you to act accordingly. The decision on how and when to evacuate is the critical first step in the success of failure of this response. The educated evacuee has a better chance of surviving the incident.

Regardless of the causation factors for evacuation, the flow of panicked, disorientated and injured people cannot be left to chance. Clear and decisive decisions need to be made beforehand and communicated to ensure that best response can be garnered. In previous professional relationship we were very amused when the senior executive always reminded us that the plan and strategy was in his head. This will be the focus of our next discussion what should a comprehensive evacuation plan look like.

Posted in Case Studies.

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